Monday, May 9, 2016

Sticks, and Stones . . . and Words

Choose your weapon: Sticks, stones - or words.
We don’t hear it as much anymore, but growing up I often heard the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The thinking behind this was that physical blows could cause harm, but we should be able to casually slough off hurtful statements hurled at us. Unfortunately, personal experience has taught us this isn’t true.

Harsh, demeaning comments directed toward us can echo in our minds years, even decades, after they were spoken. Recently a friend recalled being the target of someone’s insensitive ridicule more than 40 years before; he even remembered the name of the person uttering the insult. Talk about making an impression!

Had that individual thrown a rock at him, the incident might have been long forgotten. But damaging words have a way of piercing to the depths of our being, where healing takes place very slowly, if at all. Emotional and psychological wounds can be devastating.

Growing up I remember occasional incidents of bullying in school, but nothing to the extent that it seems to occur these days. We commonly gave each other nicknames, sometimes intended as affectionate teasing, but other times sounding like biting sarcasm. Today, bullies young and old don’t have to do it face to face. They can take the cowardly approach, seizing the protection of social media while attacking others, ridiculing viewpoints or spouting hateful epithets.

With the surge of political correctness, any expressions outside prevailing cultural norms are now regarded as “hatred,” bigotry and intolerance. Never has the tension grown so taut around one of our nation’s long-cherished freedoms – freedom of speech. Honest opinion and the right to hold beliefs and convictions, often in the face of shifting social mores, seem in grave jeopardy. At the same time, opinions and convictions don’t excuse being malicious in our interactions, whether in person, over the phone, in an email, a website that invites commentary, or any other medium.

This is why I value the wisdom and insight the Bible offers about everyday communications. We have, for instance, the admonition to speak judiciously and with discernment: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). I like that imagery – words pleasing to the ear should be like things welcome to the eye.

I’ll admit when I read statements that make little sense, or seem expressed in malice, I’m tempted to respond in kind, letting people know what I think. But I try to remind myself not to give people a piece of my mind that I can ill afford to lose! Instead, at such times it’s better to ask what the most constructive response might be, knowing sometimes no response is the best of all responses.

Here’s a guideline that’s worth keeping in mind: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Saying something because it’s true is one thing; saying it because it will be beneficial for any and all who hear it is very different.

Being a journalist – and believing “journalists” are people that have opinions about everything whether they know anything about it or not – I’ve never been short of opinions. And yet I try to remind myself of the adage that it’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. King Solomon, writing eloquently about his adventures in seeking meaning and happiness through any means made available by his position and wealth, made this observation: Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12).

Being a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize we now live in what many observers call a “post-Christian” or “post-modern” society in which many people don’t share my beliefs. One approach in interacting with them would to argue or to become defensive when they denounce matters of faith. However, that was never Jesus’ methodology. He never sought to persuade or manipulate people to His perspective. Except in the cases of the Pharisees – prideful religious leaders who clearly thought more of themselves than they should have – Jesus always responded with sensitivity, compassion and respect.

To be “Christ-like” means to ask, “What was Christ like – and how can I be like Him?” This is what the apostle Paul, one of His devoted followers, concluded: Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:6).

Contrary to the sticks-and-stones saying cited earlier, words can hurt. They can maim. Even destroy. So it’s incumbent on us not to use words as weapons, but as tools to build up, bless, encourage, strengthen and inspire. What would our world look like if we all strived to do this?

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